Violent protests have raged in the southern Syrian city of Deraa since March 18. Syria is the latest Middle Eastern country to see an uprising against a long-established autocratic regime. Just as in Tunisia before it, the hub of the movement has not been the capital, but an underprivileged, provincial city.
According to activists in Deraa, a mainly Sunni tribal city 120 km south of Damascus, security forces opened fire on protesters on Wednesday, killing at least 100 people. The report could not be independently confirmed.
On Thursday a media advisor to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad put the death toll in Daraa at 10, while a hospital official told Reuters that at least 37 had been killed. International rights groups on Thursday reported mass arrests across Syria, among them several opposition bloggers.
Injured protester in Deraa on Wednesday, March 23.
The protesters, who have not yet been identified, have been holed up for the past week in the Omari mosque in Deraa. Syrian authorities accuse them of being Salafis, followers of an austere branch of Sunni Islam. On the night of Tuesday, March 22, security forces launched an assault against the mosque.
However, life in the capital city Damascus and other parts of the country remained largely unaffected, although short-lived protests were reported in Damascus on Thursday.
Syria has been ruled by the Al-Assad family since 1970 when general Hafez al-Assad came to power after a bloody coup. After his death in 2000, he was succeeded by his by son, Bashar..
“It is more difficult in Syria than in other Arab nations to turn a local protest into a nationwide political movement”
Omar is a translator in Damascus. He tried to organise a small protest in the city centre to condemn the death of demonstrators in Deraa, but a heavy police presence deterred many people from showing up.
It’s hard for people in Damascus to know exactly what is going on in Deraa. On the one hand, there is the official version of the authorities, who say that there are just a handful of troublemakers in Deraa. On the other, we hear reports of major unrest, without really knowing who the sources are. This lack of transparency confuses Syrians and discourages them to mobilise. Everyone agrees [in principle] with condemning the protesters' deaths. But the solidarity stops there, because we still don’t know who is behind the movement.
It’s more difficult in Syria than it is in other Arab nations to turn a local protest into a nationwide movement. The single-party system and the emergency law have stifled any kind of political conscience in the Syrian people. There’s almost no chance that calls to protest on the Web would have a large following: very few Syrians have Internet access. When Facebook and YouTube were legalised two months ago, a poll found that only 200,000 Syrians had joined the social networking site, out of 23 million citizens [in comparison, Tunisia counts 2 million Facebook users for a population of 11 million].”
"The protests were initially to demand the liberation of 15 kids detained by the police"
Ayman Al Aswad, 47, is a mathematics teacher in Deraa. He participated in several protests at the Omari mosque. We were able to reach him on Monday, but since then, it has become increasingly difficult to reach people in the area by phone.
At first, those who were protesting were mostly young people. Initially, the aim of protests was to demand the liberation of 15 kids, aged 11 to 13, who have been detained by the police for over a month because they were caught scribbling anti-government slogans they’d heard on TV on the wall.
The first protests were on Friday [March 18]. Thousands of youths decided to protest in front of City Hall, but they were greeted with police who fired tear gas, followed by live rounds. Two people were killed and dozens more injured.
Protesters carrying an injured youth on March 20 in Daraa.
Then the demonstrators regrouped in the Omari mosque, which quickly became the epicentre of the protests. Injured protesters were brought in on bicycle to be treated in the mosque, because people were afraid they’d be arrested if they went to the hospital.
Volunteers taking care of an injured protester at Al Omani mosque.
In the following days, the tension continued to increase. In addition to asking for the liberation of the 15 teenagers, the protesters began demanding an end to corruption in government, the abolition of the military emergency law [which has been in place since 1963], and the resignation of the state governor and chief of police. On Sunday, protesters from Daraa and several surrounding villages forced through a police security cordon and set fire to every symbol of power they came across: the central court, a cell phone company that belongs to the president's cousin [Rami Makhlouf], and the state governor’s car and house.
On March 21 the president announced his intention to fire the state governor, in an effort to calm protesters. But it’s not enough. The youth of Daraa want to continue protesting, because what they want now is true freedom."
Protests in Daraa on March 20.